The Great Wall

Cast: Matt Damon, Jing Tian, Pedro Pascal, Willem Dafoe, Andy Lau

Director: Zhang Yimou

Writers: Carlo Bernard, Doug Miro, Tony Gilroy


The critical response to this movie has me quite perplexed. Personally, I didn’t like this movie at all. I thought it was a stupid, ridiculous, misguided mess of a film. While hardly a critical darling, this film was given a more positive reception than I thought it could possibly warrant. When I actually read some of those reviews though, what I found was that they weren’t exactly positive per se, but rather forgiving. Many of these reviews conceded that the film was silly, that it didn’t make any sense, that Damon’s performance is wooden, that a lot of the CGI isn’t at all convincing. They conceded some or all of those things, yet maintained that they enjoyed the movie anyway. A lot of this perhaps stems from the respect many critics have for Zhang Yimou, one of the most revered directors working in China today. Maybe some of them were swept away by the spectacle. Or maybe I’m making too much out of all this and all those critics simply enjoyed a silly, messy movie for what it is. All I can really say is that I didn’t like it.

The movie follows two European mercenaries, William Garin (Matt Damon) and Pero Tovar (Pedro Pascal) who are attacked on their way to China by some unknown creature. The creature massacres their entire troop but then flees after having its arm severed by William. The two survivors reach the Great Wall, where they hope to discover the secret of gunpowder, and are taken prisoner by The Nameless Order, a secretive Chinese army. Their leaders General Shao (Zhang Hanyu) and Strategist Wang (Andy Lau) reveal that they have been charged with the defence of China against a horde of alien monsters, the same kind that William and Tovar encountered, which rise every sixty years. When a wave of the beasts arrive and attack the Great Wall, William and Tovan are freed by Sir Ballard (Willem Dafoe), a European prisoner of many years, join the fight, and earn the respect of the General and of Commander Lin Mae (Jing Tian). They resolve to aid the Chinese in their resistance against the insurmountable odds facing them.

As a viewer I am far from immune to spectacle, and I must confess that this movie does have some. If there are two things that are never lacking in Yimou’s films, it’s stylish action and a gorgeous colour palette. When the film established its Helm’s Deep setup and gave us our first big action scene, I was carried away for a while by the neat production and costumes, the gymnastic fighting style of the Crane troop, and the baffling insanity of it all. But then it wore off. Then I started getting distracted by the nonsensical plot, the stilted dialogue, Damon’s inability to settle on an accent and the overblown CGI. Then I started finding the movie tedious. Once I got past the oriental setting and the action scenes I found that The Great Wall was just a formulaic monster movie. There’s a roguish hero rising to the occasion, a deus ex machina plot device in the form of a magnet, a generic lesson about trust and honour and dozens upon dozens of expendable CGI monsters getting hacked and slashed along the way. That’s about it.

While Damon is no stranger to action, he looks so uncomfortably out of place in this film. The accent, the clothing, the bow and arrow, the ponytail, he looks and feels about as convincing here as John Wayne did playing Genghis Khan. The only difference is that in this case it isn’t technically whitewashing; it’s just awkward. (On that subject, I think that they could very easily have given this film a Chinese protagonist (Jing Tian’s character maybe) but I doubt it would have made the film much better). Pascal is a little more at home in this setting, possibly because of his excellent turn in Game of Thrones, but doesn’t really fare much better than Damon. The movie tries to establish them as some kind of medieval Butch-Sundance bromance, but the banter between them is hopelessly contrived. Dafoe meanwhile is so wasted in his villainous role that I honestly forgot he was even in the film. The Chinese cast, particularly Tian and Lau, fare far better but are unfortunately still trapped in a tiresome, senseless movie.

The Great Wall is a landmark in that it marks a big-budget, high profile cinematic collaboration between the USA and China, home of the two biggest movie audiences in the world, aimed at a global audience. It also marks Zhang Yimou’s first English-language production. Sadly it simply isn’t a good film. It is confused, illogical and derivative. The action and the visuals will work for some, as long as they’re willing to turn their brains off, and that’s okay I guess. Mindless spectacle is all well and good; this one just didn’t work for me. It wasn’t epic enough, compelling enough, or bonkers enough for me to get into. I’d like to think that this movie might at least bring about further cinematic collaboration between the East and the West and allow Chinese cinema to gain an even stronger foothold in the rest of the world, I just hope that the next movie is better.

Rogue One

Cast: Felicity Jones, Diego Luna, Ben Mendelsohn, Donnie Yen, Mads Mikkelsen, Alan Tudyk, Jiang Wen, Forest Whitaker

Director: Gareth Edwards,

Writers: Chris Weitz, Tony Gilroy


The Star Wars prequels are more than bad movies, they are a profoundly disappointing missed opportunity. The idea was to expand on the story and the universe that we all loved and knew so well by turning the clock back and looking at where it all started. The tragedy of Anakin Skywalker’s descent into darkness, the truth of Obi-Wan’s greatest failure, the terrible war that led to the destruction of the Jedi Order, the fall of the Republic and the ascent of the Galactic Empire; these were stories that we couldn’t wait to see unfold. Instead we got three poorly written, emotionally hollow, excessively CG’d movies complete with midichlorians, sand flirting and Jar Jar. Rogue One succeeds where these films failed, not just because it’s actually a half-decent flick, but because it actually brought something new to Star Wars and made the franchise as a whole better than it was before.

Set immediately before the events of A New Hope the film follows Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones) as she is pulled into the war between the Empire and the Rebel Alliance after being freed from prison by Cassian Andor (Diego Luna). He needs her help to find her father Galen (Mads Mikkelsen), the lead architect of the newly-completed Death Star, so that they might learn about the weapon he has created. Aiding them is a team of rebels including the sassy reprogrammed droid K-2SO (Alan Tudyk), the blind warrior Chirrut Îmwe (Donnie Yen), the cynical mercenary Baze Malbus (Jiang Wen) and the turncoat Imperial soldier Bodhi Rook (Riz Ahmed). Overseeing the completion of the Death Star is Orson Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn), whose position is threatened when a security leak threatens to compromise all that he has worked for. From this leak Jyn learns of the existence of a design flaw hidden within the plans of the Death Star. What follows is a race against time as Jyn and her team try to uncover the nature of this weakness before the Empire can use their weapon to impose their will on the Galaxy.

There is a smaller story being told here than in any of the other Star Wars films which Edwards and Weitz try to make work by playing up the emotional stakes. The setup is not unlike The Magnificent Seven (or perhaps Seven Samurai, directed by one of George Lucas’ greatest influences, is the more appropriate comparison) where a team of ragtag individuals are driven by ideals of nobility, duty and morality to take on a perilous mission against impossible odds, along the way accepting that they will not all live to see it through. To this end the film works well for the most part. There is, for starters, a number of enjoyable, colourful characters to root for such as Chirrut, a man of faith whose actions (he believes) are driven by the Force, and K-2SO, who is basically C-3PO if he could also break Stormtroopers’ necks. Some of the motivations and personalities of these characters do leave something to be desired but there is just enough in there to make the film worthwhile. Jyn and Cassian are not exactly Leia and Han when it comes to likeability and memorability but I was happy to follow them for this one movie.

The first two thirds of the film do drag a bit as we jump from generic planet to generic planet waiting for our heroes to kick off the movie’s climax but, once they do, it is every bit worth the wait and is everything a Star Wars fan could possibly want from a climax. An epic space battle: check. The infiltration of an Imperial base: check. The greatest Darth Vader action scene in history: double check! That the film never quite found the time to truly define its characters the way A New Hope did does work against them as our emotional investment isn’t quite as strong as they probably wanted. While we do get to see their story-arcs fulfilled in some very good character moments, it is more affective than it is moving. You’ll be invested enough that the events will register with you, but they won’t really leave any sort of a lasting impact. Still, with that said, the spectacle of this climax is more than strong enough to be worthy of the Star Wars name.

As well as an astounding third act, Rogue One is also worth watching for the ways in which it ties in to A New Hope. By setting out to fix what is probably one of the most famous and often-debated plot holes in cinema, the story at large has become stronger for it. The Death Star’s Achilles Heel is no longer a deus ex machina, it is now an entirely justified plot device that adds a greater context and weight to Luke Skywalker’s fateful assault. Other tie-ins include the glorious return of Vader as well as Grand Moff Tarkin, recreated in the image of the late Peter Cushing. I’m ambivalent on his inclusion. While a part of me does feel uneasy about digitally manipulating a dead man’s image to make a movie, I can’t deny that another part of me was overjoyed to see him again as the marvellously sinister villain that he had played so well. Personally, I think that I can accept this choice as long as Disney and Lucasfilm agree not to make a habit out of it (especially in light of the tragic and untimely death of Carrie Fisher).

The strengths and weaknesses of Rogue One are interesting to look at when comparing it to The Force Awakens. While that film did have misgivings in terms of plot, it made up for those misgivings (for me at least) by virtue of its new, wonderfully engaging characters such as Rey, Finn, Kylo Ren and BB-8. Rogue One has a more individual, better-told story in its favour, but the emotional resonance is not as strong because the characters are not as compelling. They’re fine in that they serve their roles, have a few good moments and keep you invested for the duration of the story, but they don’t have that strong sense of identity or the enduring quality that has made the original characters or their successors as celebrated as they are. Rogue One is, all in all, a very decent film and a creditable addition to the Star Wars canon. By taking us away from the Skywalker story for a little bit, this film has more than any other Star Wars movie shown us how big this universe truly is and how much life there is in its history and civilisations. I look forward to learning more in their future spin-off instalments.

★★★★